TW: racism, sexual coercion
RF Kuang, author of “The Poppy War,” wrote his latest novel “Babel” to express his love-hate relationship with his alma mater, Oxford University. But is Babel really worth reading?
“Babel” is a story about Robin Swift, a Chinese orphan brought from his home country to study at the world’s most exclusive silver engraving university, Babel. Located in London, this institution is known for being the mass producer of magical silverware, in which engraving translations of words allows them to have magical properties. It’s a skill only possessed by multilinguals who speak and dream in their mother tongue.
What is fascinating about “Babel”, however, is not its magical system or the way the whole book is written in the exact timeline of the 20th century British and Chinese revolutions, with every major historical moment in the book marked and explained in more detail in the index. What makes “Babel” captivating is the fact that the whole book is a dedication to a study of Eurocentrism in education and a desperate analysis of a subject rather neglected in fiction in general.
Racism is hard. Racism is sensitive. Racism can be done wrong in many ways, but Kuang manages to navigate this landmine of a subject with one hell of a literary analysis.
Robin is portrayed as a character who deeply fears the repercussions of standing up for herself, often ignoring racial jabs and culturally insensitive questions to keep her position in Babel.
It doesn’t help that Babel is a world Robin never imagined he could enter, let alone influence. But, due to his native ability to speak Mandarin, the school decided he was useful for their program – that is, to be their next money burner using his native language, faithful only to the king and country.
The problem with that is obvious: Robin has strong ties to his inescapable heritage. Although he was young when he was taken away from his small oceanside village in China, he knows he is not in Babel because he is respected, but because he is is needed – and being needed is not the same as being considered an equal.
Time and time again you see Robin being made fun of for his looks, teased for his accent and being forced to go white because his father is his teacher – a disgusting fact that hints that Robin might be the product of sexual coercion. . All of this torment points to the obvious consequence that had been a long time coming: Robin will eventually crack under the pressure.
This is a parallel that is very obviously drawn with what most minority students experience in higher education today. While it’s highly unlikely that we’ll join a rebel group aiming to overthrow our institutions, many groups encounter what Robin does: the knowledge that our cultures are appropriated, taken for granted, and measured against an outsider’s desires. Kuang gives us the indulgence to have our stories told and gives us catharsis through a destruction we all wish had been a long time coming, though in reality such violent revolutions are unlikely to occur.
I’m not asking you to be an avid fan of insurgencies right away to enjoy this book, but I do ask you to keep an open mind. If you’re curious about why cultural revolutions happen and how historical instabilities occur, this is a good book to read, especially for explaining dangerous racial ideologies and dismantling them from within.
This is all the more relevant today as modern fiction and society become increasingly inclusive. Along the way, we need to have more uncomfortable conversations, even when they’re terrifying.
All I can say is that if you’re not looking for a scathing critique of a white-dominated patriarchal upbringing, this isn’t the book for you. But, if you want a slow burn and in-depth philosophical discussion of cultural appropriation, then pick “Babel.”
The easiest way for me to describe “Babel” would be through the author’s own summary quote: “Traduttore, traditore: an act of translation is always an act of treason.” If betrayal is painful, then Eurocentrism is at the heart of it. And as the whole book insinuates, the longer you ignore it, the more devastating the rage will become.